As activists and organizers, is our work accomplishing what we want it to?

It’s an important question for us all to be thinking about, and we’re happy to share that the Canadian Museum of Nature is helping to get some conversations started on the topic in Ottawa.

On February 24th, the Museum’s monthly Café Scientifique event was organized around the question “When Does Ecological Activism Cross the Line from Helpful to Counterproductive?”. Supported by the Sierra Youth Coalition, the evening featured presentations, a screening of the documentary Eco-Pirate, on the life and work of Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace and leader of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, and a closing group discussion.

The turnout was impressive, considering the blustery weather that Friday evening. The room filled slowly, but it did fill, and everyone who braved the snowstorm was welcomed into the classy, intimate Salon room of the Museum and treated with hot drinks and delicious deserts, before moving to the Museum’s deluxe downstairs movie-theater.

The documentary was excellent, and we recommend it for anyone interested in ocean conservation, the history of environmental activism, or the process of social change as a whole. It chronicles Paul Watson’s journey from a young activist in the 60’s, known for being up for anything to the leader of one of the most notorious environmental organizations. Featuring intense scenes of the Sea Shepard’s characteristic boat-ramming interventions on illegal whalers, and candid insights into Watson’s character, the film brought up blood pressure, and a lot of questions. It was a great jumping off point for the evening’s discussion.

The presenters shared their thoughts on the film, and insights from their own work. Kevin Donaghy, an active community organizer who is involved on many local issues including the Occupy Ottawa movement, suggested that in view of the serious problems our society faces, doing something is always better than doing nothing. He also reminded us that getting involved doesn’t need to be difficult because every bit helps, and taking the step to do something in our own lives, even if its small, can make us feel a lot more hopeful, and effective.

Aaron Doyle, a professor from Carleton University’s department of Sociology and Anthropology whose research and teaching focuses on social movements, proposed that whether or not we agreed with the specific actions like those of Paul Watson, it is important to look at their wider impact. Though more “radical” tactics like Watson’s may not win the support of the majority of the public or government, they certainly get people talking, not only contributing to the momentum needed to make change, but also making sure this momentum isn’t only “feel good” but also remains critical and aware of the many different perspectives existing on the issue.

The conversation at Café Scientifique following these presentations was dynamic. While opinions ranged, the energy was warm and positive, and every table had insights to contribute. The Museum of Nature deserves credit: they created an open, inviting space for discussion about some important issues, and an easy way for everyone to get involved — exactly what the evening’s presenters and participants concluded we need more of.

Visit the Museum’s blog for full notes from the discussions, and some reflections by the staff at the Museum of Nature on the event (to be posted shortly). If you’re in the area, we highly recommend going to one of these evenings in the future. Check out the schedule for the Museum’s upcoming Café Scientifique events. The next one will be held on Friday, March 30th, and will be focused on the question “Can We Protect the Web of Life in Our Oceans?”. 

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